The Department of Homeland Security has ordered increased security reviews of incoming foreign students' visas after it was found that the two friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that removed evidence from his room were in the U.S. on expired or invalid student visas.
The two students' lapsed visas escaped the system, and they were only investigated in relation to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since they had no previous criminal records that would have triggered an immigration investigation.
This alarming hole in the security screening made the Department of Homeland Security issue an order "effective immediately" sounding the alarm over the student visa process and overhauling procedures.
International students who wish to study in the U.S. must obtain F-1 visas that allow them a temporary stay for the duration of their study. Dzhokhar's friends Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, both 19, were on F-1 student visas from Kazakhstan. They started attending University of Massachussets Dartmouth in 2011 along with Dzhokhar, but Kadyrbayev had stopped attending classes regularly in recent months in violation of his visa terms.
He was not enrolled for any classes at UMass Dartmouth at the time of his arrest last month, according to his lawyer. If Kadyrbayev had not been enrolled since February 27, 2013 without any reasonable explanation (such as health problems), the college's records should have ben transmitted to the related agencies.
Kadyrbayev would not have been allowed to stay beyond a certain amount of time had the authorities received his updated registration status.
Even more concerning is the fact that Tazhayakov passed Customs and Border agents at JFK International Airport on January 20, 2013 two weeks after UMass Dartmouth had informed federal officials that his enrollment was terminated because of low grades.
The agencies had not updated their systems with that information and the lapse in communication allowed both students to be in the United States in violation of their visas at the time of the Boston Marathon bombings. The two students delayed investigators by removing crucial evidence from Dzhokhar's room in order to protect him.
"We know that they’re not monitoring them. They only go after overstays if there’s an obvious national security or public safety concern with a student who has overstayed. Everybody else is not bothered," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter limits on immigration.
"How do you get back into this country without a visa?" asked an irate Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He further questions that "It's surprising that the administration isn't already verifying that any student coming into the country has a valid student visa."
"What's more concerning is that nearly 12 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we haven't fixed the problems with identifying visa overstays," Sen. Grassley continued.
Sen. Grassley joins Rep. Michael McCaul, head of the House Committee on Homeland Security, who in his outrage told CNN that"The fact that a foreign national was able to re-enter the U.S. with what appeared to be a valid student visa, while Customs and Border Protection officers were unaware that his visa status had become invalid, represents a serious hole in our national security."
DHS officials are now ordered to ensure that Customs and Border Protection receives updated information on international students. They are also mandated to verify every international student coming into the United States has a valid visa by checking their paper records against a computer database of international students.
"We need to be deliberate in this process," urged Sen. Grassley, who presurred Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to explain the two students' cases. "We can't afford to screw up again, particularly in the age of terrorism."
486,000 F-1 visas were issued to international students in 2012, double the number from 2002, according to the State Department.